I walked down the windy downtown streets enjoying the beautiful sunshine of spring. As I passed strangers they marveled at my red cello case on my back, and I took small pleasure in the attention. Entering through the backstage door I was greeted with a smile, my name was checked off a list, and I was then directed to a group practice room. The room, whose periphery was covered with mirrors, held about six cellists facing the mirrors their backs to the center of the room. I was greeted by a cacophony of sound and a few nervous glances. With a mixture of smug rebellion, friendliness, curiosity and insecurity, I scouted out a spot in the room to warm-up. I wanted to look around me, but felt it would be rude. Instead I sized up someone beside me playing through Debussy La Mer while I unhurriedly unpacked my cello. Not bad. I worked up to a brave peak and a quick smile at an Asian woman in the corner. Then I noticed an obsessed looking middle-aged man anxiously repeating the same phrase over and over. He was hunched over and tense. The sound of his cello reminded me of someone screaming with a stuffed nose.
On my right a friendly young male said hello, and said he thought he knew me. I laughed. Maybe it was the hat he said. He liked my hat. I liked his La Mer. He had a sweet, clear tone, and beautiful phrasing. “Sounds good” I said. I pulled out my pile of excerpts, than decided instead to practice Louange a l’eternite de Jesus from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. It felt appropriate in the midst of this apocalyptic cacophony of unemployed cellists.
Another cellist arrived. This one was really strange. He looked European with fancy shoes and hair cut long, with rimmed spectacles. He found a spot in the middle of the room and in slothe-like fashion slowly, and painstakingly carefully began settling in, removing each article of his craft. After five minutes he was to be found standing above his cello, his legs straddling either side of the lower bout, staring down at it, stone still. I think he was having a transcendent moment. Or maybe he just overdosed on beta blockers. At intervals I peered over to see if he had made any progress, and he seemed to alternate between poses staring down at a score, and poses straddling his cello. What a neurotic bunch, I thought, looking at myself in the mirror. I dug around for a piece of paper and started taking notes. This was too good to forget.
I finally started playing through my pile of excerpts slowly. More cellists dribbled in: a forty something woman with her own chair and stand, complaining all the while about the conditions. Then came an extremely small man with large mouse-like ears. Maybe he is really good, I thought. You never know. In a rush of compassion, I felt an overwhelming sense of connection to each quirky cellist in the room, struggling to master their instruments, and get work. I wanted to know their stories, their trials and tell each of them that they mattered, even if they weren’t picked today.
As it turned out they didn’t pick any of us. They heard us in two bunches of about ten. No one advanced in my group. I might have been a bit sloppy in my spiccato, but it mostly went well, considering the time I had to prepare. I even had a moment of appreciation of my sound in the Brahms excerpt. After my two minutes playing behind a screen to the faceless judges, I was utterly unconcerned. I have never been passionate about excerpts, or trying to discover how others want me to sound. I love conquering technical challenges, but only so I can express more poignantly the depth of a work. I knew I was a mismatch, but something had compelled me to take the audition. Maybe I needed to be sure.
With the exhilaration of rebellious joy several of us convened a raucous conversation in the back room. We exchanged numbers and stories. As I walked out of that hallowed hall of mirrors and judges into the sunshine, I felt light and free. I had people to play for, recordings to make and stories to tell.